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Are you a learning unicorn?

No, I don’t mean the mythical creature that every 5 year old wants their parents to magically acquire for them. I’m talking about being a workplace unicorn, you know, the people who have varied skills and can do a bit of everything. In the startup world we classify unicorn companies as: A unicorn is a […]

No, I don’t mean the mythical creature that every 5 year old wants their parents to magically acquire for them. I’m talking about being a workplace unicorn, you know, the people who have varied skills and can do a bit of everything.

In the startup world we classify unicorn companies as:

A unicorn is a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion. The term was coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, choosing the mythical animal to represent the statistical rarity of such successful ventures. 

(Source: Wikipedia)

What I’m talking about is unicorn roles or to put it simply:

An individual who works on their own or in a small team where they are required to take on multiple roles. They have know-how and skills in multiple areas and basically do a bit of everything.

You’ll commonly see this in engineering and product teams at startup’s where there is usually one or two people who could be responsible for the end to end process of building and releasing a product. Think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

This model is common within learning functions too. Even beyond the startup world, many workplace learning functions are made up of just one person. In scenarios like this, it’s not uncommon to develop into a learning unicorn. Being a team of one will mean you’ll need to learn a lot of skills and perform several roles across your workplace. Although some might deem this as too much work, it can be an advantage to your career.

In much larger teams, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd and only focus on the specific part you play. Opportunities to explore and develop out of this lane might be difficult. However, as a one person set-up you have the opportunity to explore and use many different skills in your work. I appreciate this might not suit all, but if you’re curious about how things work and have an open mind to develop new skills then being a unicorn might be right for you.

This is not to say that you can’t develop within a bigger team. It’s of course still possible if you have good people around you to learn from and enable your growth. A lot of people seem to think that you need to be in a bigger team to learn more and progress. This isn’t true in my opinion. 

As someone who has worked in large international teams supporting thousands of people for many years and to more recently playing the role of a one man team as a unicorn. I have seen both sides of the coin and appreciate both. There are opportunities on both sides and I would recommend you experience both to discover what works for you.

For me being a learning unicorn works as I get to satisfy my creative needs, work across multiple areas and use the full toolkit of skills that I possess. Maybe in the future I’ll want to specialise in one area but being able to have full responsibility of the end to end product lifecycle is an experience I would recommend to any L&D professional. You’ll get a better understanding of learning design, marketing, brand and more in a hands- on environment. Which is something I’ve always felt is missing for those who are earlier in their careers in large corporations.

So, if you think you need to join a large corporate workplace learning team to acquire new skills and experiences, think again. The opportunity you seek might be in a much smaller environment and it might even be where you are right now.


For more thoughts like this, please subscribe to my weekly newsletter where I share insights, experiences and reflections on learning, personal development and managing the monkey mind.

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